Renaissance Art and Music

: the space between

Video Pairing: The Ambassadors and Thule, the Period of Cosmography

Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497 – 1543)
The Ambassadors, 1533
207 cm × 209.5 cm (81 in × 82.5 in)
Oil on Oak
National Gallery, London.

Thomas Weelkes (baptized 1576 – 1623)
Thule the Period of Cosmography & The Andalusian Merchant, 1600
From ‘Madrigals for five and six parts’, published in London
Text author unknown
Performed by The Hilliard Ensemble.

Thule, the period of cosmography,
Doth vaunt of Hecla, whose sulphureous fire
Doth melt the frozen clime and thaw the sky;
Trinacrian Aetna’s flames ascend not higher:
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

The Andalusian merchant, that returns
Laden with cochineal and china dishes,
Reports in Spain how strangely Fogo burns
Amidst an ocean full of flying fishes:
These things seem wondrous, yet more wondrous I,
Whose heart with fear doth freeze, with love doth fry.

3 comments on “Video Pairing: The Ambassadors and Thule, the Period of Cosmography

  1. Harriette Peel
    January 24, 2013

    Part of the intrigue of portraits is their distillation of the person’s identity into historicised stasis. This contradicts the idea of a portraiture’s ‘timelessness’ – for it is not the the individual themselves that is immortalised, rather the way in which they were recorded. Painting can do this especially; the person’s curious two-dimensionality enhances this feeling that the person has become a single memory, a slide, something to skim-read.

    Holbein’s Ambassadors is particularly odd in this respect. An inherent sense of movement, indeed a requirement of movement on the part of the viewer in order to view the skull ‘properly’, contrasts markedly with the stillness of the two men and the collection of objects. Take the skull away and you have an incredibly straightforward painting: two men standing either side of some shelves, in the middle of the frame. The two men and their accoutrements are crystallised within the frame, and only the skull-trickery indicates the life and activity that preceded Holbein’s painting.

    Music breaks this down. Particularly a piece of contemporary-ish music whose lyrics tie in so interestingly with the subject of the painting. I had a feeling when watching this video that the two men were watching me as I began to engage more intently with the scene they and Holbein had created, as if thinking – finally, you aren’t just glancing over us as if relics from another world. Adding the layer of aural experience to how I view this painting – even in replica on a computer screen – and sitting with it long enough, almost made me feel as if I had been invited into the room to examine the objects in it with them. It also broke down the objectification of the men themselves fundamental to portraiture.

    Katie, Matt, other musicologists: what’s the story behind the piece of music – where would it have been played, and who for? etc

  2. Maxime Rischard
    January 28, 2013

    When a certain friend of mine pointed out how the music imitates the swooshing of the flying fishes at 3:30, flying in and out of the water, I think my mind was just about blown. I love the sense of humour in the song and the painting, hundreds of years ahead of the surrealists.

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2013 by in Video Pairing and tagged , , , , , , .

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